A scabrous, provocative and often funny social satire about the American dream, Spike Lee’s flawed but fascinating “She Hate Me” addresses everything from corporate malfeasance to the African AIDS epidemic, barely catching its breath in-between. Yet the frenetic enterprise, while undeniably overextended, reps a more successful venture into darkly comedic waters than Lee’s “Bamboozled.” Alas, while Lee’s films often spark controversy, that rarely equates to good box office (his highest-grossing fiction pic of the last decade, 1998’s “He Got Game,” topped out at $21 million domestically) and the challenging “She Hate Me” seems unlikely to reverse the trend.
From its early image of a $3 bill bearing the smiling visage of George W. Bush and an Enron watermark, “She Hate Me,” which was co-written by Lee and actor-playwright Michael Genet, announces it’s as much a movie of the moment as the political docus presently flooding forth.
In a set-up ripped from yesterday’s Martha Stewart headlines, Jack Armstrong (Anthony Mackie) is the youngest (and, apparently, the only minority) VP of Progeia, a New York pharmaceuticals company developing a potential cure for AIDS. All seems well until the company’s star scientist (David Bennett) leaps to his death from his office window. When Jack subsequently gets wind of document shredding and insider-trading deals being masterminded by Progeia’s sleazy-slick CEO (Woody Harrelson), he decides to turn corporate whistle-blower, losing his job in the process.
In short order, Jack’s bank accounts are frozen, he can’t land a job interview, and the Security Exchange Commission investigators start checking him out instead of his bosses.
Then, out of the blue, his ex-fiancee, Fatima (smoldering Kerry Washington), who left Jack for another woman, shows up with an unusual proposal: She and her current lover, Alex (Dania Ramirez), both want to get pregnant, but don’t find the average sperm bank up to their high standards. Instead, they’re willing to pay Jack $10,000 each to sire their children. And despite the voice inside his head that tells him this isn’t a good idea, Jack consents.
But little does Jack suspect that Fatima will spread the word about his “services” to a network of upwardly mobile lesbians. Soon, Fatima begins making nightly visits to Jack’s apartment, with four or five multiculti friends in tow, all willing to ante up for an intimate session with Fatima’s ex.
Lee then proceeds to show Jack in action, in several montages of uproarious bedroom encounters. Finally, Jack has fathered a whopping 19 offspring. It’s a clever reversal of roles — the man as the sex object — but it loses some of its edge because of the cliche depiction of Fatima and her entourage as uniformly baby-feverish man-eaters. Lee and Genet employ lesbianism as a kind-of metaphor for feminism, which may open pic to criticism.
Like many of Lee’s recent films, “She Hate Me” is less a single tidy narrative than a sprawling array of characters and storylines. In addition to its depiction of Jack’s entrepreneurial endeavors, the film tells of the SEC investigation into Progeia and of the strained relationship between Jack’s mother (Lonette McKee) and diabetic father (Jim Brown). And pic manages to squeeze in dialogue between Jack and a grizzled, “Godfather”-quoting Mafioso (John Turturro) about institutional racism, as well as a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”-style, climax on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
If pic’s disparate pieces don’t fit together in a fully satisfying way, “She Hate Me” nonetheless is to be commended for keeping so many misshapen balls in the air, and so nimbly, for as long as it does; as with “The 25th Hour,” pic is keenly alert to the outside world at a time when so many movies seem rooted only in other movies.
In one of the film’s boldest strokes, Lee positions Jack as the spiritual descendent of Frank Wills, the security guard who first reported the Watergate break-in, but who went on to die penniless while the Watergate conspirators themselves grew rich from book deals and radio shows. Then Lee goes even further, reenacting those events on screen, with “Dirty Pretty Things” star Chiwetel Ejiofor playing Wills.
As can be Lee’s weakness, “She Hate Me” greatly overstates certain points, particularly in the final act. There is also a sense that the sentimentalist in Lee is working overtime to find a way to end things on a hopeful note. Yet, more often than not, the sheer originality and ambition of the project carry pic, which is further bolstered by its superb ensemble cast — in particular, McKee, Brown and relative newcomer Mackie, who looks and sounds as though he might be Will Smith’s younger brother, but who has a befuddled everyman charisma all his own.
Production values are excellent, with standout contributions by veteran editor Barry Alexander Brown and composer Terence Blanchard, who works up a series of inventively bluesy riffs based on a rousingly patriotic main theme. Shooting in Super 16mm, “Requiem for a Dream” d.p. (and first-time Lee collaborator) Matthew Libatique does well by Lee’s typically imaginative compositions and use of screen space, though print screened showed occasional image ghosting, presumably picked up in the digital post-production process.